As a result of last month’s State Assembly budget negotiation marathon, Californians will get yet another chance to cast a seasonal ballot on tax and other issues in the state’s May 19th special Spring election. And while $11 billion in higher taxes seems like a high price for democracy, given what’s on that ballot – spending caps and other reforms – it may well be worth it.
As part of the deal, however, the state will get a chance at real reform by, ironically, following Louisiana’s lead and voting in June 2010’s Spring Election on whether to change the California’s primary system. Granted, Louisiana is known for throwing good parties, not for having the best political system. But the legendary endemic corruption of the Bayou State has nothing to do with the manner in which they elect their legislators.
On the contrary, just about everything that makes California a practically ungovernable state can be derived from the way we elect our legislators. With gerrymandered districts drawn by the politicians who hold – and want to keep the seats – and a closed primary system, California’s legislators represent the political extremes, both red and blue, in what is an overwhelmingly purple State.
The state’s political parties have effectively made November general elections little more than exercises in chad-punching. The number of Republicans and number of Democrats remains basically fixed in Sacramento, and Republicans know that because of their minority status, the only thing keeping them relevant is their ability to block super-majority votes, like the two-thirds needed to pass a budget in California.
Because there are so few competitive general elections in California, most of the politicking goes on in primary season. Since California primaries are closed, these contests cater to the fringes of the political spectrum. In 2008, Democrats ran on a platform of impeaching George Bush, ending the war in Iraq and doing the labor union’s bidding. At the same time, successful Republican primary candidates ran on platforms of closing the border, deporting the illegal Mexicans and no new taxes.
None of this adds up to doing much good for a state government in crisis. And, because nearly a fifth of California voters choose not to affiliate with any political party, their usually-moderate voices are effectively disenfranchised from the process.
The blanket-primary concept is simple. Every candidate, irrespective of their political affiliation, is on the same ballot. If someone gets fifty percent, they’re elected. If not, then the top two candidates, regardless of political party, go to a runoff. In places like San Francisco, you could end up with two Democrats or a Democrat and a Green Party candidate on the runoff ballot for the statehouse; behind the Orange Curtain, voters may choose between two Republicans.
Ideally, a candidate will always try to appeal to a majority of voters in a given district, regardless of party. In a runoff scenario, that will be a necessary tactic, as voters will have either a competition of ideals between parties, or two members of one party courting the votes of the entire electorate. The political extremists that now run Sacramento may not be chased out of town, but they will no longer have a stranglehold on the government.
The result of this system does not make the partisans happy. Liberal blog Calitics declares, “we’d have a Senate full of Susan Collinses — and Joe Liebermans,” as if that were a bad thing. Conservative Flash Report complains that conservative obstructionism of the state budget process would be history under the plan.
Sounds to me like any sensible centrist should be rushing to support the blanket primary plan. But with the cost of circulating and qualifying ballot initiatives in the million-dollar range, I wonder if taxpayers will stand for being stuck footing the bill – to the tune of $11 billion – to get this on the ballot. But if it passes, it may well be worth event that cost!
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